Don’t Wait For the Calendar (New Year’s Reflections)

This conversation transpired between my parents as we turned on the New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone Marathon:

Mom: “Can you believe it’s the last day of 2012?”

Dad: “Yeah.”

Reminders that it’s the end of the year abound today.  The gym was full of Resolutionaries (more on that tomorrow), and my Facebook feed was littered with reflections on 2012.  Of course, I had to participate in the Facebook reflections.  It’s practically required.  But…why?

Everyone is aware (on some level) that the calendar year is nothing but an arbitrary organization of time.  There is no real difference in the progression of time between December 31st and January 1st any more than there is between July 23rd and July 24th.  So why do we treat New Year’s as a time for reflection and renewal?

You may be surprised at how relatively recently the world adopted to the calendar we all use today.  In Roman times, the New Year was a drunk, sexually-charged celebration on January 1st, according to the Julian calendar. With the spread of Christianity there was a desire to move away from the decidedly pagan history of this date (despite the intentional co-opting of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice for Christmas; perhaps New Year’s orgies were too much for the church deal with).  Some Christian countries began celebrating the New Year on Christmas, others on Easter (despite its varying dates every year), and some on March 25th (the celebrated date of the angel’s announcement of conception to the Virgin Mary).  The Gregorian calendar eventually recalibrated the calendar around a January 1st New Year once again.

Outside the traditionally Christian empire, the Chinese New Year is a significant cultural celebration of the coming of spring; Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a holiday of reminiscence by tradition, in which participants must account for their behavior over the past year to G-d.  Hindus celebrate their New Years on different dates depending on their location, although the fall Festival of Diwali is well-known.

Various traditions for the New Year exist worldwide, and many of the celebrations are not tied down to an annual calendar date like the secular January 1st celebration.  This seems to resonate better with me than strictly calendar-based holidays; as far as Christian holidays are concerned, I’ve always liked that Easter and the Lenten season follow lunar cycles.  Similarly, the older I get, the less concerned I am with calendar-based holidays.  With work schedules and life events, it’s not always possible for my family to be together to celebrate Christmas on December 25th; this year we celebrated it on December 30th, last night.  And that’s ok with me.

I appreciate that many people will take this week as an opportunity for reflection and rebirth, but I encourage people to not wait for an arbitrary date to make positive changes in their lives.  Take time everyday for self-reflection and self-improvement, don’t wait for the calendar.

Things We’re Not Supposed to Talk About: Money

I have had very vivid dreams for as long as I can remember. My earliest dream involved a monster in a warehouse trying to steal my favorite stuffed animal, a sheep named Sheep (I’ve always been a very practical person*).

Last night, I dreamed that the 11-year old I nanny complained to me that she only had $100,000 in her trust fund. Being an adult, dream me didn’t scoff at her and give her a speech about how the rest of the world lives; dream me tried to assure her that that would do her just fine until she got older.

I wondered idly this morning what prompted that specific dream interaction. Yesterday was a rough day of nannying, so I assume that influenced my stream of consciousness.  Then I remembered a dream from a few nights ago in which I was calculating some budget items; when I woke up, the numbers seemed to check out, so congratulations, brain.  Is this the start of an endless number of “adult” financial worries?  Probably.

Growing up I was taught to never talk about certain topics with friends.  Of course, I quickly found out that these topics were my favorite discussion pieces, and I had interesting (although likely ill-informed) conversations about religion, politics, and money with anyone willing to participate.  I once asked my piano teacher how much money all the pianos in her house cost–a practical question, of course, if I was going to buy myself a house full of pianos someday.  Needless to say, my mom was pretty embarrassed by that one.

As I’ve gotten older, I found that most people of my generation are fairly comfortable discussing finances among friends.  These days, perhaps it’s less of a pissing contest than it used to be.  Particularly in grad school, none of us was overly impressed that someone else on a Research Assistant stipend was making $20k/year–we all did.  What we wanted (and needed) to know was how our friends’ budgets broke down.  How much do you spend on food?  What’s your rent here?  What are your student loans like?

Now that I am (barely) out of grad school, I haven’t found much of a change.  Young professionals are still comparing notes and asking about rent and utility prices, where you do your grocery shopping, and unabashedly asking how you can afford certain apparent luxuries.  On Reddit, I follow r/frugal, where mostly 20-somethings share tips on how to cut costs on day-to-day living expenses.  I follow a blog called Get Rich Slowly, and exchange favorite personal finance books with friends.

Maybe this is just the result of the particular microcosm of society I choose to spend my time with, but I’m curious if any of you have similar or different experiences?

*Real life me later brought Sheep to Show and Tell on the letter “P” day, and the following conversation transpired between another child and myself:
Child: “What’s that?”
Me: “Sheep.”
Child: “What’s its name?”
Me: “Sheep.”
Child: “That doesn’t start with a ‘P.'”
Me: “So?”
I was a pretty popular kid.

STORM:CON, Naming Winter Storms, and Other Media Hype

A few months ago, The Weather Channel announced it would begin naming winter storms.  Today, it released a new winter storm severity index named STORM:CON.  The idea is similar to its summer TOR:CON, identifying tornado potential risk, although the latter is little more than an interpretation of the Storm Prediction Center’s severe weather outlook.

The idea of assigning unique identifiers to significant weather events is not a new one.  Most people are familiar with the naming of tropical storms; the World Meteorological Organization is responsible for the naming of the Atlantic events, and eastern hemispheric scientists take responsibility for their regions.  Personifying the storms with familiar names has allowed scientists and the media to make the general public aware of a specific storm and its expected human and ecological impacts.  Even the naming of winter storms is not uncommon; newscasters and reporters have been known to sensationalize blizzards under the headline “Snowmageddon” and Twitter hashtags like “#snOwMG.”  In the scientific community, local National Weather Service offices have assigned event names to significant lake effect snow storms and even tornadoes after the events.

What makes The Weather Channel’s approach to both names and numbers controversial?  The television network is promoting the idea as a way to raise public awareness of potentially hazardous snow events, a goal that most of the media and scientific community seem to encourage.  The primary concern of the community about this new approach is the unilateral power given to a private organization (The Weather Channel) in deciding which storms are named and ranked, and doing so with a very loose set of criteria.  Unlike the naming of tropical storms, which have very specific criteria to meet before being named, the channel has announced that storms will be named based on subjective measures like the population of a region being hit and the time of day that the storm affects an area.  Accordingly, a foot of snow dropped in the rural Appalachian mountains may not result in a named storm, but two inches of snow in a major metropolitan area occurring at rush hour may garner an identification.

From a scientific standpoint, both ideas are essentially useless without specific criteria based on a consensus from the community at large; from a media standpoint, there is no obligation for individual news outlets to use The Weather Channel’s naming or ranking conventions.  Many scientists consider the general idea of naming winter storms to be sound, but are concerned with the methods being employed here.  As was shown following the landfall of Hurricane Sandy (which evolved into a significant winter storm event of its own) very few in the media opted to utilize The Weather Channel’s naming convention for Winter Storm Athena, which followed two weeks later.

STORM:CON appears even less likely to be applied across various media outlets than the storm names, as is evidenced by the lack of universal usage of TOR:CON, which was released a few years ago.  The same problems that plague the haphazard naming of winter storms also plague this new index, as some level of subjectivity will be incorporated into the 1-10 ratings, which read as follows:

STORM:CON 1 to 3
Snow or ice occurs but does not produce significant impacts.

STORM:CON 4 to 5
Impacts would disrupt commerce or travel but not force closures.  You might see NWS advisories at this level.

STORM:CON 6 to 7
Impacts would close down commerce or travel for a day or less. Metro areas with active NWS Winter Storm Warnings might fit into this category. Recently named winter storms such as AthenaBrutusand Caesar would likely be in this category.

STORM:CON 8 to 9
Impacts would close down commerce/travel for multiple days, typically reserved for biggest storms which might occur 3 to 4 times a year.

STORM:CON 10

Reserved for anticipation of debilitating storms which might occur once or twice a year.  Complete shutdown of travel and commerce possibly for several days.  Examples would include storms such as Snowtober, Snowmageddon etc.

If The Weather Channel were to reach out to other meteorological organizations to achieve a consensus on naming and ranking storms, I (and others) would be less likely to label this as another example of media hype.  From my professional view, however, this comes off more as a quest for ratings than a quest for public awareness.

The Right to Be Wrong: Embracing Weaknesses

I’ve spent the past few months working as a nanny for two teenage girls in an affluent part of the greater D.C. area.  Out of respect for the family, I’ve limited the number of social media posts I’ve made about their personal affairs.  The girls are bright, attend private schools, and are involved in multiple extracurricular activities.  The parents are well-educated and kind, and, in hiring nannies, they like to expose their children to various academic specialties and experiences.  As you can imagine, my tornado research and background in the sciences was intriguing to the family, and I’ve done a mixture of tutoring and driving the girls to activities during my time here.

One thing I’ve struggled with throughout my life is the overwhelming desire to be “right.”  More to the point, I made it my life goal to never be wrong.  My teachers and peers identified this trait in me easily; the former considered it a strength, while the latter exploited it as a weakness.  I now know this is a combination of my Type A personality as well as the effects of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  As my doctors have explained to me, the wiring in my brain is defunct, and this will continue to be a struggle for me.

As many of you can attest, grad school puts perfectionism to the test.  There are a couple of ways this can occur, depending on your personality:

  • You enter grad school having graduated top of your class in undergrad and are ready to show the academic world what it has been missing.
  1. Result: More than a few people happy to knock you down a few pegs, slowly wearing you down.
  • You struggle with Impostor Syndrome, and assume everything you do is wrong/could be better/is worse than your colleague’s approach to the problem.                 
  1. Result: Lack of external and self-validation slowly wears you down.

The latter was my experience, and I had trouble reconciling my desire for perfection with my need for sanity and progress in my career.  This is part of what led me to take a break from academia.

But what do my nanny kids have to do with this?

It’s been awhile since I’ve taken high school physics, but I did struggle greatly with a fluid dynamics course I took in the engineering school last fall.  The family I work for expects me to be a science resource for them, and I am always excited to provide information on various topics.  But sometimes, I don’t know.

I can measure the progress of my emotional and intellectual maturity in how I react to questions I can’t give an answer to.  In the past, I would either pretend I knew the answer or flush bright red with embarrassment from not knowing.  I should know this, I should know everything! I’d think.  But I’ve come to accept that I don’t have all the answers, not even close.  Not only that, but it’s good for my mental health to hear myself say, aloud, with no shame, “I don’t know.” 

Maybe my teenagers are surprised when I don’t know how to do their simple physics homework problem.  Or when I’ve forgotten a few simple geometry tricks.  I know at their age I would have assumed I was smarter than this 20-something “scientist,” and swelled with pride at teaching them how to do my physics.  But I don’t fear that reaction from them now; in fact, I hope that I’m teaching them a lesson that it’s taken me far too long to take to heart—it’s alright to be wrong, and it’s even better to admit you don’t know.

Formula for a Science Museum

This weekend, Matt and I went to the Science Center in Baltimore thanks to a nifty LivingSocial deal.  As Scientists(TM) and self-proclaimed nerds, we really enjoy playing around at museums.  We take somewhat different approaches to each exhibit, however: I read each posted sign or instruction (for hands-on exhibits), while Matt runs around touching things and speed-reading through various visuals.

I posted briefly about the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry on my last failed blog, and after our trip to Baltimore this weekend Matt and I realized our standards are now too high.  Chicago’s exhibits are top-notch and there is plenty of space for children to roam without getting too underfoot.  Baltimore’s exhibits followed the same tired pattern of every general science museum:

  • Our Bodies, Ourselves
  • Planets and Space
  • Flight
  • Earth and Nature
  • Dinosaurs
  • An IMAX theater
  • Science Store! (always my favorite exhibit)

Now the Baltimore museum did have a cool future energy-efficient cars exhibit, but from our travels it seems that is a new addition to the “must-have exhibits” in today’s science museums.  My favorite exhibit was the one with the least amount of children roaming about, a new study about race in the vein of “are we really all that different?”  We noticed that even though the exhibit was “new,” much of the data cited were from older studies, so even it seemed out-of-date.

The children seemed to enjoy themselves (which is most important), but after our Chicago experience, Matt and I left disappointed.  Chicago had the Bodyworks exhibit on display when we visited, which preserves real body parts so people can observe what they look like on the inside.  We were particularly impressed by the progression of fetuses (feti?) in various stages of development that had been preserved.  There was a baby chick hatchery with fresh chickens being born to a live audience, and there was a full-size train engine inside.  Even the food court was impressive.  Of course, we were also dazzled by the Science of Storms exhibit which included many of our friends and colleagues, as well as the IMAX dome showing of “Tornado Alley.”  We saw an IMAX film in Baltimore as well, but the screen was not a dome and the movie was made in the 1980’s.

Anyway, I think the take-home message is to support your local science museums, financially.  These places need the funds to update and maintain their exhibits–it could mean the difference between a two-story and a two-foot tornado simulator.

Must Love Dogs

When I moved to Rockville a few months ago, it was under the condition that I could find a part-time job.  I’d applied to retail positions around my parents’ house in Culpeper, VA, but the only response I got was from Starbucks.  That was not due to my excellent barista skillz either (though that would make for a fun post of its own).  My parents are very animated characters, the type that make friends wherever they go.  My dad likes to consider himself a “Culpeper local,” and all the area coffeehouses know him by name and drink order.  Anyway, he got me to the interview stage at the Culpeper Starbucks (there is only one), but I was hesitant to jump into a minimum wage job.

I chuckled to myself when I saw the numerous dog walking positions posted on Craigslist.  I imagined every movie scene with a frazzled 20-something woman holding the leashes of multiple dogs running down the streets of a never-asleep city.  This usually was the set-up for a “what am I doing with my life?” story line that ends with our heroine getting some fancy pants corporate position, reconnecting with her family, and haphazardly meeting the rich man of her dreams.

I’m pretty much set on the last two goals, but I sure could use that first plot twist right about now. So I contacted a local pet sitting company, filled out some paperwork, met with the clients, and now I have keys to their houses!  The latter part is still a little strange to my paranoid brain.  During my initial interview, my supervisor asked me what concerns I would have if I were hiring a dog walker.  I told him that other than them stealing my things, I’d be worried they’d be a weirdo and steal my dog.  I guess that would be filed under “irrational fears” and “answers he doesn’t hear often,” but I still got the job.

Right now I’m walking three dogs: Tigger (yellow lab), Buddy (cocker spaniel), and Charlie (beagle).  I used to walk Bert (rottweiler/Bernese mix) and soon I’ll be walking two sibling Boston terriers.  It’s a fun gig and great for my ego too–all the dogs are always excited to see me.  Tigger can be a little hard to handle when he gets excited, and when I walked him and Bert at the same time, I looked just like the movie dog-walker, flying down the sidewalks with my hair and jacket all askew.  Buddy tries to eat everything he sees on his walks, and I mean everything.  Around Halloween he found plenty of candy, and yesterday he tried to eat a stick whole, but my favorite was the time he found a dead bird and carried its bones in his mouth for the entire walk (that was a gross discovery towards the end).  Poor Charlie is a beagle rescue and super shy around new people, but his mom was happy to see him take to me very quickly.  Our walks usually consist of me coaxing him out into the world for 20 minutes, then sitting on the couch and looking out the window with his cat sibling.

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Tigger and Bert
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Buddy
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Charlie and Benny

I’ve uploaded pictures without the dogs’ faces to maintain their anonymity. 😉

In addition to dog walking, I’m also a nanny to two teenage girls.  They require less walking, but need more help with homework than my canine companions….

The Job Search, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and…Just Kidding, I’m Worried

It’s official: I have completed my M.S. in atmospheric science. Now, as a bona fide degree-carrying scientist, I should have my laboratory of beakers and tornado simulators set up, right? I wish. The job market is rough for everyone right now, and I know I’ve made more than a few people nervous about the economy by telling them that I’ve applied for 200-300 positions with little response.

I’m trying to remain realistic, of course. Now that I’ve moved to the D.C. area to be with my groom, I’m geographically limiting myself to a region not know for its extensive tornado research. Also, let’s be honest, I left the PhD program at Purdue because I’m not sure my heart is in research right now.

So what am I doing? As I wade through the classifieds of Craigslist, USAJobs, and various job search engines every day, I seem to hone in on certain career categories. College and grad school really pulled me away from the joys of leisurely reading and writing; if I had time to read and write for fun, why wasn’t I doing my research?

I’d like to describe my ideal job posting:

Science Writer Wanted
– Experienced writer wanted to facilitate communication between [Sciencey Company] and the general public. Responsibilities will include promotion of [SCIENCE] through social media, weekly blog posts, as well as drafting of official correspondence and press releases. Occasional international travel required. Telecommute potential.

Alternately, I’d be willing to try the freelance route of providing [SCIENCE] articles to various media outlets if I could be assured those opportunities wouldn’t dry up. We are trying to save up for a honeymoon and a house, here. Also, I do need some level of routine for my sanity.

In the meantime, I want to keep my mental muscles flexed by using this blog more regularly. You can consider this my primary website now, as the After the Chase blog is no longer relevant (and has been collecting cobwebs for some time now anyway).